MR. X embraces growth in episodic VFX with new projects under Berardi’s leadership
By Giovanna Borges
Known for its auteur-driven projects, MR. X is rapidly growing as it embraces the challenge of creating high-quality episodic content in the age of video streaming. The studio has thrived in a partnership with Netflix over the last five years — with a string of projects still to come in 2020.
This is Part 2 of our chat with the studio’s Global Managing Director Dennis Berardi, where we learned more about how MR. X is evolving to adapt to industry changes, and how it is charting its future in visual effects.
You can read Part 1 here.
TF: You launched MR. X 19 years ago. Looking back, what’s your assessment of how far the studio has come?
Dennis: Technically, we are approaching our 20th year. I’m very proud of what we’ve been able to accomplish, but there is still a lot of work to be done. When we started, we were working on independent films and low-budget music videos. Now we’ve progressed to the point where we’re doing high-end, design-based work. We’re doing fantastical digital environments that are photoreal and creatures that act and perform. We are part of two Academy Award-winning movies in a row with The Shape of Water and Roma. I think the studio has come a very long way and a lot of that is sort of a natural progression that you gain through experience and skills growth.
I feel our best days are ahead of us and we are turning a new page. We’re looking to shake off some dust, grow again, invest in the studio and in new technologies and recruit the best talent.
Guillermo del Toro is coming back for us with his next movie called Nightmare Alley, a noir drama based on a novel by the same name by William Lindsay Gresham. Also, we’re going to be working on Foundation, based on the famous science fiction novel by Isaac Asimov, and Jupiter’s Legacy, an exciting new superhero sci-fi series for Netflix based on the popular comic series by Mark Millar and Frank Quietly. We need to continue to evolve in the same way by embracing all the resources that we have at our disposal, including the latest and greatest technology.
TF: What’s on the horizon for MR. X for the upcoming months?
We are a big service provider for Netflix, and we’ve done 17 projects for them over the last five years. I’m very proud of our relationship. They have relied on us to deliver a standard of quality and we’re embracing that. A big plan in Montreal is to embrace the Netflix work, and the first of which will be CURSED. The series, created by Frank Miller (Sin City, 300) and Tom Wheeler (The Lego Ninjago Movie, Puss in Boots), is a re-imagining of the Arthurian legend told through the eyes of a gifted teenage heroine.
TF: What do you think makes MR. X stand out compared to other VFX studios?
I think MR. X is different from other studios in a couple of ways. The first is that our process tends to be much more intimate with the filmmakers. We are usually involved in the design process and on set. We are partnering with filmmakers and making real-time decisions with them. At MR. X, if you are an artist, an animator, a lighter or a DMP concept artist, you’re likely going to be working directly with the filmmakers at some point. You won’t be hearing the word secondhand or thirdhand. Usually we like to involve the artists directly in our process, on the front lines with the filmmakers. I believe that is a part of our DNA because that’s how I started the company and that’s what we’re continuing to do.
Secondly, we tend to offer long-term contracts, so the artists can really become part of the family. I feel a lot of companies are only offering three- to six-month deals, while we offer at least one year, and we try to get the artist settled into a role. I think that makes us different because we’re heading into our 20th year and we have people at MR. X who’ve been here for 10 to 15 years. Some people who have been here right from the beginning are still here, like Aaron Weintraub or Kristi Blackwell. In my opinion, this kind of longevity is very rare.
TF: What kind of technical demand is MR. X facing and how is the studio adapting to it?
The appetite on the streaming episodic side is big, the volumes are huge and the timelines are tight. So, we are investing in rendering and storage space as well as improving the computing power at the workstation. We’re also leaning into the cloud as much as possible and we’ve struck a relationship with Microsoft Azure, which is exciting. We’ve been rendering on a show called Monster Hunter on the cloud and it’s been successful, and we’re hoping to replicate that to embrace the volumes.
TF: As we’ve been discussing, there is a clear demand for high-quality episodic content these days, and MR. X has been part of it as well with ‘A Series of Unfortunate Events’. What are the specific differences and challenges between creating episodic VFX compared to film VFX?
There used to be a bigger difference in the past. Typically, episodic VFX were less complicated because the scope was smaller. But now, we’re seeing convergence in the era of 60- and 70-inch OLED TVs and big sound systems at home. The viewership is looking for higher quality and more experiences like they would get in a cinema. So, in some ways, movies are becoming easier than series episodic because we’re asked to do a lot more and the timelines are tighter.
TF: How did MR. X develop its identity of specializing in genre features and what’s particularly exciting about it?
We just work on the movies we want to watch. That’s always been the reason that we work on The Shape of Water, Vikings or A Series of Unfortunate Events, which are some of our favorites. I’ve always had an interest in visual storytelling and suspense features tend to embrace these visual components. I feel they employ visual storytelling in a new and interesting way and they really push the boundaries. One of the first movies that we did was Dawn of the Dead in 2003 with Zack Snyder. This is a perfect example of a film that I would go and watch, and I was thrilled to work on. This director really employed a visual style that took advantage of the license you get in a genre movie. And I have continued to just try, pitch and work on shows that I want to see. Once we’re in that place everything that happens is good because you want to make it great since it’s a movie that you, your friends and your group want to see. And we’re trying to hire people who buy into that as well. We’re into interesting camera angles, fantastical environments, creepy edgy characters, and video games. I think you need to have an idea of what you want to accomplish with a digital studio, and I think overcomplicating it is too much. So, I keep it simple and I want to work on movies that I want to see.
TF: Does MR. X think about expanding its studio to other cities and countries?
We see a lot of growth in Montreal, Toronto and Bangalore (which is sort of our secret weapon). I’m always looking for other interesting jurisdictions, but we need to have conditions to be in play for that. We need to consider macroeconomy, the quantity of artists that we can hire locally and how our global infrastructure plan would work. — thefocus.com
This interview has been lightly edited for clarity.